Merely calling Jim Woodring’s comics surreal is selling them short. Granted, bizarre creatures and phantasmagoric landscapes abound in his wordless work, most of which focuses on a pair of humanoid creatures named Frank and Manhog as they attempt to either attain or evade the biological and metaphysical mysteries of the strange world they inhabit. But Woodring’s vivid draftsmanship and narrative linearity operate just as easily as parable, gospel, and even slapstick. Since thrusting his creations into the forefront of the alt-comics world in the ’90s, Woodring has collected his Frank-and-Manhog stories in The Portable Frank, but the new graphic novel Weathercraft is his first original, book-length tale featuring the pair; it also pushes his iconography and storytelling into new areas of grotesquerie and revelation, all without his characters uttering a word. Woodring, a storyboard artist for the Ruby-Spears animation studio in the ’80s, has also branched out into other media in recent years, including a series of onstage collaborations with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and a line of bizarre toys under the Jimland Novelties banner. Before embarking on a national tour in support of Weathercraft, Woodring spoke with The A.V. Club about being the subject of a documentary, working on Saturday-morning cartoons with comics legend Jack Kirby, and the sound of Frank’s silence.
The A.V. Club: With all the work in other media you’ve been doing lately, it’s been a while since you’ve released any new comics. What prompted you to do Weathercraft?
Jim Woodring: I had this story written and laid out and ready to go two years ago. I didn’t finish it then because I was working on other things, and I knew it would take me months to do. I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule at the time. But I got those other things done, and I had a hankering to do a nice, long comics story, so I checked with Fantagraphics to see if they would publish it. They said they would, and so I drew it.
AVC: The length of the book is unique in your catalog of Frank stories. Why did it take you so long to get around to doing such a sustained story?
JW: It sounds kind of dumb, but I just didn’t think of doing it until recently. I used to publish these stories in 32-page comics, and I would either do short stories or break the long ones up into chunks so there would be some variety inside the comic. But since then, people have been doing more and more long, standalone works, and the term “graphic novel” has sort of become the codified term now. It just seemed like the time was right to do it. I always felt that I could do those Frank stories by the inch, yard, or mile. The length of the stories never really mattered that much to me.
AVC: Once you committed to this project, did you find there were things you could do with a story this long that you hadn’t been able to before?
JW: Well, to tell a longer story, certainly. It’s, for me at least, easier to tell a short story. And it’s easier for a reader to keep everything in mind throughout the duration of the thing. In a long story like Weathercraft, it becomes kind of convoluted. It can become perhaps difficult to remember what led up to whatever point you’re at. I worried a little bit about people being able to keep the shape of the story in their heads while they were reading it, and not wonder how they got wherever they were.
AVC: There’s a wider market for graphic novels than for individual comics today, so a lot of people may be exposed to Frank for the first time through Weathercraft. Is that why you put so much explanatory text—and even a rundown of the cast of characters—on the dust jacket?
JW: I decided to put all that stuff on the dust jacket because there were really no words in the book. I thought it would be funny to have a book that was almost word-free and a dust jacket that was slathered in copy. It occurred to me afterward that it might actually help serve as an introduction to people who have never seen that world before.
AVC: The contrast is really striking—the wordy cover and the wordless comics.
JW: And the book itself doesn’t have the title or the publisher or anything on the cover. It’s just a drawing. The verbiage of the book itself is really kept to a minimum.
AVC: The Frank comics have always been silent. What made you decide to set that standard for yourself and stick to it for so long?
JW: When I started formulating the first Frank comic, I knew I wanted it to be something that was beyond time and specific place. I felt that having the characters speak would tie it to 20th-century America, because that would be the idiom of the language they would use, the language I use. I thought that having it be pantomime would maybe give it a little more universality, a little more mystery, and make people who are reading it provide their own notion of what the characters were thinking or what sounds they were making. I’ve always felt that Frank made noises through which he communicated, although I’ve never indicated them. I don’t see Frank’s world as a silent world at all. It’s filled with the kinds of noises you hear when the sun comes up: birds and squirrels and other animals awakening to the day. Thinking about the place, I hear a lot of noise there.
AVC: In the fictional co-author credit you give Frank in The Portable Frank collection, you even mention that. You say, “He wishes it to be known that he can and does talk; it is the comics that are wordless, not he.”
JW: [Laughs.] Yeah, right, right.
AVC: Was that just a bit of cleverness, or is there something deeper to that explanation?
JW: Not necessarily a deeper explanation, but people have asked why Frank doesn’t talk, and I sometimes have to make that distinction. So I threw it in that book for all to see.
AVC: You say that keeping the comics wordless also keeps them timeless, but you do place modern-day objects in Frank stories: a railroad, for instance, or an automobile. How cautious and deliberate are you about including these potentially jarring elements?
JW: I think about that a lot. There are some Frank stories where very specific objects from this world appear, like a revolver or a bicycle. They usually do stand out, and at times they’re stand-ins for something I don’t know how to depict otherwise. I don’t know how to get my point across without using that specific symbolism. Instead of using a gun, I would like to use something like a gun that was peculiar to Frank’s world. But I just couldn’t introduce something like that and let the reader know what its characteristics were. So I rely on a gun, which everyone knows has to go off once it’s introduced in the story.
AVC: When those real-world elements do pop up, they also kind of tether the dream-world Frank lives in.
JW: The props in the stories are there to serve a specific purpose. When something doesn’t belong there, I don’t do it in order to create a discordant note or a disconnect or a strange conjunction. It’s always because it has some purpose or function that it has to perform. I never do it just to be mysterious.
AVC: Speaking of recognizable objects in your stories, the most conspicuous absence is that of human beings. When humans do show up, they usually only exist as paintings or silhouettes.
JW: That always depends on what role that particular character is supposed to play. When you refer to the silhouette from that old Manhog story, that was to portray a more evolved person than Manhog. But I didn’t want to show a specific human being. I just wanted to show sort of a placeholder for any human being. And in Weathercraft, Manhog sees a man and a hog at the same time, the two halves of his character separated. It’s the first time he’s ever realized there’s a basic conflict within himself, the two side of his nature.
AVC: A documentary about your life and work, The Lobster And The Liver, premièred recently in Seattle. How did it feel to have someone approach you about such a project?
JW: Like a lot of freelance cartoonists, when any opportunity like that comes along, I have a hard time saying no, whether it makes sense or not. I was flattered that these Canadian filmmakers wanted to make this film. I acquiesced, but after that, I think I made it kind of hard for them. They had an artistic approach that they wanted to use, and I really didn’t want to do that. I guess I just wanted them to film me talking and show my work, and if they wanted to interview other people, then do that too. But I resisted their attempts to kind of set up tableaus and situations. If they were filming me at a public event, they’d want me to go around a corner, count to 10, and walk into the store as if they’d just captured me doing it. I refused to do that. It’s hard enough for me to walk down the street anyway, and to pretend that I’m just nonchalantly walking around the corner into a building, I just couldn’t do it. I would feel too weird, and it would show on the screen.
I think that left them at loose ends as to how to approach it. The first filming started five years ago, and it’s been finished for a year or two, so they persevered. I’ve heard from people who have seen it that it’s a fairly accurate portrait of me. I’ve also heard it’s an unflattering portrait of me, which is probably good. I think you have to be suspicious of anything that makes someone look too good. It makes me cringe to think about it, not because I think it will be a bad film or anything, but because I’m already self-conscious enough. I’ve seen a couple intermediary versions of it, but I’ve never seen the final product, and I probably never will. It’s very hard for me to watch myself onscreen. It’s hard for me to even contemplate.
AVC: That might be hard for just about anyone, sitting down to watch a movie about yourself.
JW: I think so, unless it was something you controlled perfectly, so that it was the exact image of yourself that you wanted to get out there. It’s funny, in some of the interviews I’ve seen that were done for the film, some people say things like, “Oh, I was never a very big Jim Woodring fan. I’ve never thought his work was that great.” [Laughs.]
AVC: In one of the trailers for the film, there’s a shot of you standing in a building that has the same Middle Eastern architecture often found in the Frank comics. Where was that?
JW: That’s Brand Library in Glendale, California. It’s an arts-and-music library that’s right up the street from the house where I lived as a teenager. It was my refuge. I used to spend every free moment up there. I’d go there every day right after school. It’s where I learned about modern art and the little I do know about music. And of course the architecture is so gorgeous and evocative. I used to just moon around that place and fill myself with post-adolescent daydreams. It’s such a beautiful, poetry-inducing place.
AVC: So it’s safe to say that’s what you based Frank’s architecture on?
JW: Certainly. That Moorish architecture is all over the place, of course. It affects me everywhere I see it, as it does so many people. But Brand Library was a special place to me, and I know I’ve paid homage to it many times in my drawings.
AVC: In another trailer for the film, you’re at a sketch pad drawing and talking about a “vocabulary of shapes” you use. You even break it down into three categories: real shapes, imaginary shapes, and hybrid shapes. How are those significant to your work?
JW: Real shapes and real patterns are things you would observe in nature, like the marks on the back of a cobra’s hood or the markings on a fish or a lizard. Imaginary shapes are just that, symbols that come to a person in dreams or reveries and are charged with meaning. In fact, they can be so compelling, a person can spend a lot of time trying to follow and decipher them. They sort of lure you across the landscape. The real shapes and the imaginary shapes are just there, but the hybrid shapes are made up to fulfill a specific purpose in the story. If I want to convey that something is loaded with a certain kind of potential, I’ll show a shape that looks something like a bursting seedpod. If I want to show that something is female, I’ll pick an obvious female-representative shape. If I want something that’s warlike or dangerous, I’ll make it spiky like a cocklebur, something with less-than-cuddly connotations. I use those shapes in order to provide an undercurrent or a subtext to what it is I’m trying to say.
AVC: You mention being lured across the landscape by shapes, and that’s very much what Frank often does in your comics. Are you consciously trying to tap into that kind of quest myth?
JW: In Weathercraft, I refer overtly to The Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell called it. There are a lot of direct quotes from a number of those stories. But the thing that makes the whole concept of The Hero’s Journey and The Hero With A Thousand Faces so interesting is that it’s not just poetry. Those stories are actually a sort of manual for achieving specific results. The Hero’s Journey that transforms a person is an option everybody has. The Hero’s Journey is the terminology everybody uses for it now, but I don’t think that the person who’s going through it feels very much like a hero. I think that’s kind of misleading. For most people, it’s a compulsion or a sense of being driven to embark upon a campaign or embrace a certain discipline. It’s in Weathercraft, too, the idea that there’s something real behind that story. I think the idea behind all those myths and folktales that Joseph Campbell rounded up is that you can change yourself. A person at war with himself or herself can become someone solidly on the side of life. You can transform the kind of human being you are into something most human beings can’t even recognize.
AVC: You brought up the scene in Weathercraft where Manhog sees his constituent parts, the man and the hog, separate from each other, and with one subservient to the other. It reads like an epiphany.
JW: I had an experience when I was in my 20s. Someone read the I Ching for me. No one had ever done that for me before, and I didn’t know anything about the I Ching. I still don’t very much. But at this one reading, the couplet was, “Dragons wrestle in a meadow / Their blood is black and yellow.” That and the explanation that accompanied it made me realize something about a conflict that had been raging inside me ever since the age of reason. I had never, ever identified it before, or had it identified for me. I’d never seen it before. All of a sudden I realized there were these two aspects of myself that were completely unintegrated, and that that was the source of virtually all of my trouble. It was a huge, eye-opening experience for me. That interests me a lot, the question of people being at war with themselves. Manhog having this realization is actually a small part of Weathercraft, but it is a trigger.
AVC: Would you say then that there’s some autobiography to Weathercraft?
JW: It’s autobiographical to the extent that it deals with things I wrestle with in my own life. I don’t think the structure of the story mirrors the story of my own life very closely, though. But all the things that Weathercraft deals with are of intense interest to me personally.
AVC: For a brief time in the ’90s, you did some more conventional autobio comics in Jim, although “conventional” might be a stretch. You draw yourself into the comics, but like Frank, they operate on a dreamlike level. One story, “What The Left Hand Did,” seems more literal, though: You wander into what looks like a thinly veiled comic-book convention full of artists hawking their work, and you say, “I sense that many of them suffered under the curse of luck.” Do you remember what inspired that story?
JW: Boy, I haven’t seen that story in so long. I’d have to look at it again to refresh my memory of what I meant there. I don’t even remember that part. That was drawn in the early ’90s or even the ’80s, a long time ago.
AVC: Do you remember what prompted you to do autobio comics?
JW: The stories I did about myself in Jim are either things that happened to me in real life or dreams. I just thought they were interesting. I had these experiences, and I didn’t see a reason to put any other character in there to be experiencing them. I just thought I should keep it me. It wasn’t because I liked drawing myself. Like so many decisions you make when you’re doing comics like that, I didn’t think about it that much. Once the idea occurred to me, I just did it.
AVC: So seeing yourself in comic-book form isn’t as unsettling as seeing yourself in a documentary?
JW: Well, you can control it entirely. Still, it was important to me not to show myself in a very good light in Jim. There’s a lot of self-deprecation in there, which I thought was necessary. If I was going to show myself, I didn’t want to come off good.
AVC: At the same time, Jim isn’t self-deprecating in the way a lot of autobio comics are. You don’t show your most recent breakup or anything like that. Does literal autobiography interest you?
JW: Only if it was the only way to make a point about something other than myself. Doing a story about my mundane, waking life, how much I don’t like my job, or breaking up with someone, I don’t think so. Those stories don’t interest me that much as a general thing. When a great artist does an autobiographical comic, it’s great, because everything a great artist does is great: Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary or some of R. Crumb’s comics.
AVC: When did you first pay serious attention to artists like Crumb, or even comics as a whole?
JW: I always liked cartoons, but I never read comic books except for Mad magazine. I wasn’t a superhero fan or anything like that. When the underground comix of the ’60s came out, though, I thought they were great. That really opened my eyes to what could be done with that medium. I did comics in high school and afterward, but I didn’t really jump into them and take them seriously. I was mostly trying to do standalone little pictures. That was what I really wanted to do, the kind of picture you would look at and it would sort of change your reality, like the best surrealism or the best symbolism does. So I worked at that and was pretty sure that was where I was going to stay. I worked on this little self-published magazine called Jim that didn’t have any comics at all. Gary Groth, the publisher of Fantagraphics, saw it, and he said, “If you add some comics to this mix, I’ll publish it.” So I said okay. At that point, I hadn’t drawn any comics for a long time, but I tried to remember enough and learn enough to do more. So that’s how I became a cartoonist: I was told that if I drew comics, they’d be published.
AVC: That’s always a good impetus.
JW: It really was, and I’m glad it worked out that way. I was slow to learn how to do comics, but once I got the hang of it, I found I really liked it.
AVC: Were your earlier attempts at comics published at all?
JW: Yeah, they were published. When I was in high school, I worked at a hippie tabloid called Two-Bit Comics. It came out twice a month and was sold in vending machines on Hollywood Boulevard for a quarter. I also did some things for Car Toons. I don’t know if it’s still being published, but it was a magazine of cartoons about hotrods and muscle cars, in which I had no interest whatsoever. But they were buying comics, so I supplied them. Those comics I did were pretty terrible. I managed to do a few newspaper cartoons here and there, but nothing very good or very extensive.
AVC: When and how did you break into the animation industry?
JW: It fell into my lap. I had a good friend who worked in the storyboard department at Ruby-Spears, and he offered me a job, so I took it. I worked there from 1981 to 1988, drawing storyboards and working on pitch art. Aside from the cartoons we produced, it was a great job. The cartoons were horrible, but the working conditions were great. The people I worked with were great. Jack Kirby was on salary there, and he’d come in once a week with quarter-sheets of crescent board on which he’d drawn his ideas for what would make good TV shows. I would ink them in and sometimes color them. At one point, I was a department supervisor, which was a total disaster. In fact, I was a total disaster in the animation studio in general. I wasn’t cut out for that work, and have since felt guilty that I had a job that really should have gone to someone more qualified and interested in the industry. I mostly used it as a way to make money while I worked on my comics. I wasn’t a good employee at all. On the other hand, if the cartoons had been halfway decent, I could have gotten into it. But they were so terrible, it was hard to work on them, seriously.
AVC: What were some of the animated series you worked on?
JW: The Mister T show was one. Turbo Teen, a classic. Rubik, The Amazing Cube, in which a Rubik’s Cube was adopted by a Chicano family. That was groundbreaking in its own way. Oh, God, shows like that.
AVC: You say you weren’t cut out for that kind of work, and Kirby was tragically overqualified for it. Did you ever commiserate with him?
JW: I don’t think I ever saw him outside of office hours. I went to his house once, but I never really socialized with him. Some of us from the office did have sort of a skiffle band, and he participated in that a few times, and when my son was born, he brought in a gift for him. We had a cordial, professional relationship, but it didn’t go beyond that. [Comics veteran] Gil Kane worked there, too, and we became real good friends. I think everybody who knew Gil Kane thought they were his best friend. He had that knack for making people feel that way.
AVC: What made you leave Ruby-Spears?
JW: What happened was, the company folded, and then the smog in Los Angeles reached such a terrible, terrible point, my wife and I started to worry about our toddler. I said, “We should get out of here. The smog just rotted the cones out of my speakers. Think of what it’s doing to this kid’s lungs.” I had lived up in the Pacific Northwest before, and I always had a hankering to live in Seattle, so we packed up and moved. The only work I had at the time was coloring Gil Kane’s The Ring Of The Nibelung. Doing that in watercolor was what I used to finance the move. Then I became the typical freelance cartoonist without any particularly good connections or opportunities. So I had to hustle. It still is a bit of a hustle, to be honest. I really never know what I’m going to be doing or how I’m going to be making money. It’s the life I chose for myself, so I’m used to it, and I can handle it. But sometimes I sit back and think, “You know, how am I making a living here? I don’t even know what’s going on.”
AVC: When it comes to freelance projects, you surprised a lot of your fans a few years ago when you wrote a few Star Wars and Alien comics for Dark Horse. What made you decide to do those?
JW: I’d had offers to work on other comics, but I never did them because I thought I couldn’t do them. I loved the first Alien movie, and I liked the subsequent ones, and the prospect of writing a series but not having to draw it was very, very enticing. Working with that monster was just fun for me. I really enjoyed doing that. It was so much easier than working on my own stuff.
AVC: It’s interesting that your Star Wars comics focus on Jabba The Hutt, perhaps the one character from that universe that wouldn’t look entirely out of place in your Frank comics.
JW: That was just what they offered me. I didn’t enjoy working on that series as much as I enjoyed the Alien comics. That opportunity came along just before the first Star Wars prequel came out, and they were doing all these new Star Wars comics to support it and exploit it. It was a regular, dependable, short-term, well-paying job, and those have been very, very scarce in my life. I was extremely grateful to get it. Whether I enjoyed doing it was a totally secondary concern.
AVC: The range of work you’ve done over the years is broad, but one of the most remarkable projects are your live, art-plus-guitar collaborations with Bill Frisell. How did that come about?
JW: The project Bill and I worked on was simply an outgrowth of our friendship. We met in Seattle because our kids were going to the same school, and he and his wife and I and my wife became friends. I felt we had a lot in common artistically. I like his music, and he likes my drawing. We had been planning for a long time to work together if we possibly could, and somehow he scored us a grant to do exactly that.
AVC: At this point in your life, is it important for you to be able to branch out creatively like that?
JW: It is. I like to have experiences. I like to do new things. Of course, it’s an honor to work with someone like Bill Frisell, and some opportunities came along with that which were really enjoyable, including a performance at Carnegie Hall. That was a big thrill. What’s funny about my position now is, every time I go after a job or a project or any kind of a career plum, I don’t get it. But if I just stay here in my studio and work, opportunities seem to come along. That’s become my M.O. I just wait and see what comes up.